Masks that we all wear

July 12, 2020 | Anna Zielazny

The Galeria Municipal do Porto has opened its first group exhibition of 2020. "Masks" presents the work of twenty-one artists and artistic groups and is curated by Valentinas Klimasauskas and João Laia. The exhibition started on June 2nd and will last until August 16th, 2020.

As the title suggests, this display focuses mostly on masks and their artistic, cultural, and anthropological meaning. The curators displayed 32 pieces in a big, open space of the gallery.

The exhibition opens with Laure Prouvost’s Metal Yoga Men - Upward Facing Dog. The metal construction brings to mind the asana from yoga practice mentioned in the title. Instead of a head, it has a big mirror in which visitors can see their reflection. Yoga practice supposes to allow the person who practices it to connect to the self. One of the ways to do this is to self-reflect. Looking at the mirror, the visitor becomes a part of this artistic yoga pose and can literally see self-reflection. The idea is to get rid of the masks and connect with the real self. 

Laure Prouvost, Metal Yoga Man - Upward Facing Dog
In the background, Victoria Sin, Fun Bag

In their works, Victoria Sin raises the topic of sexuality, gender, and identity. Presented at the exhibition, Fun Bag was created with a plastic shopping bag, hanging on a clothes rack. Inside it, the artist has put two red balloons, which raise a connotation with the female breast. By displaying it this way, it has become an isolated item, rather than part of someone's body. This installation does not have a "face", but this doesn't mean it can't be interpreted as a mask. The bag is half-transparent with red stripes and because of this, and because of its shape, it calls to mind a swimsuit. Fun Bag can be a critical comment about western culture regimes of beauty that have become a part of life and identity. These everyday objects are questioning the representation of the female figure in the media, where the body has been turned into the object. The title Fun Bag suggests an objectification of the body, that becomes nothing more than a tool of pleasure. However, this piece of art can also be read as a field for interpreting one’s own identity. The lack of a 'face' suggests a space which can be filled by anyone. This way, breasts become a visual manifestation of sexual identity.

Adam Christensen created The Red Light Special (Dirty Version). Using different textiles, the artist created a type of merino wool canvas in which he implemented body shaped lace, with eyes and lips created of pink textile. On the lace, the artist has placed big, red dots that are covering the whole body and face. The dots conjure up ideas of drops of blood but also a microscopic view of bacteria. To be precise, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a sexually transmitted disease. Red Light, the district of sex workers, was interpreted by Christensen in the "dirty version" where sexual fantasy and pleasure, represented by the lace, are covered with illness. The illness in this case is covering the body and face as a mask, that gives a new identity. The transparency of the lace may also be interpreted as the invisibility of sex workers and their problems. A pretty mask of the sex industry is deconstructed by exposing something hidden and treated as a taboo. 

Adam Christensen, The Red Light District

At the "Masks", visitors can also see a video by Amalia Ulman, Post from Instagram from the series Privilege. The series started in 2016, right after the election of Donald Trump as US president. A girl with an Instagram filter on her face is sitting in an office and talking to the camera: "You think my English is funny? You think I am cute?". The filter on her face is the flag of the USA. 

This work can be interpreted, first of all, as a critical approach to Instagram and other social media where people create their images, very often based on chosen, precisely created moments. In this context, it is worth mentioning other Instagram works by this artist: Excellences & Perfections. 

Ulman is an immigrant from Argentina. In the video, she is speaking with a strong accent, in a bit of a flirtatious way. Covering her face with a filter of the American flag can be read as a mimicry. This term, in the context of postcolonialism, was introduced by Homi Bhabha. The colonizer encourages the colonized subject to mimic their culture, language, customs. It is to pressure a colonized person to become a "copy" of the colonizer as it is never possible to become the perfect reflection. Ulman literally wears the flag of the USA on her face, showing how it is influencing the identity but also mocking it. The filter never covers her face perfectly, it disappears and appears again. This work can be interpreted as a critical comment of the anti-migration and misogynistic politics of Donald Trump. In this Instagram performance, Ulman, by asking the mentioned questions, shows the sexualization and objectification of an immigrant woman whose accent, despite the flag covering her face, reveals that she is not an "American". 

Amalia Ulman, Post from Instagram, from Privilege

Overall, the exhibition was quite interesting. The open space worked perfectly for most of the pieces. However, the disadvantage of it was that all the videos with audio were very hard to understand as the sounds were overlapping. In the works, different artists treated the main topic in diverse ways. Some of them see masks as a cover, others as a change of identity or focused on the mask as a way to express themselves. 

The choice of the topic seems to be perfect considering the current situation when all over the world people wear masks. They have a useful role, but they are also becoming a part of a collective identity, as well as a symbol of contemporary times.

I'm a polish art historian, specialized in Eastern European art. Currently, I am living in Porto, Portugal. I am a creative writer and the author of SlowMotionTravels blog.

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